Monday, 27 April 2009



Dave was off racing at the weekend. SXC round 2 at Aberfoyle; 2 hours of maximum-intensity riding where you explode out from the start line like luridly-dressed greyhounds, except not chasing a rabbit. I had intended to be there too and Dave and I would ride together, slugging it out in the Veterans race (I've only ever done one of these races, so I'm not sure I'm really a veteran, other than by virtue of not being all that young anymore). However, a day's vigorous gardening, removing concreted-in washing poles and hacking at tree roots with a shovel, immediately following the Kinlochleven ride had caused my war-wound to flare up. Unlike The Major in Fawlty Towers, this isn't a white-hot shard of burning shrapnel embedded in my flesh, but a bit of a sore wrist caused by nothing so heroic as the defence of the realm, rather a hapless scaphoid fracture caused by falling off first a bus shelter and, later, a bike.

Riding to work last week was giving me a lot of pain, even though most of it was on smooth roads, so I baled out of the race. Not that I'd baled in in the first place, but the intention had been there. I decided on a weekend of long, gentle-paced rides. Saturday evening was a 2-hour local ride, taking in the best of West Fife's mythical singletrack. Everything is dry. So dry, in fact, that the climb up to Craigluscar Hill is actually rideable without stopping, sliding or vomiting. The gorse smells fantastic and the air is full of birdsong. The sun shines and a light breeze fans my brow as I zip along twisting, narrow trails over roots and rocks, dodging between trees and riding like a God. Even The Dean is dusty and the mud is parched and cracked, although I steer clear of the Heart of Darkness in case the spell is broken. In my exultation I compose paragraphs and paragraphs of utter pish for the blog.

On Sunday I pick Chris up and we drive to Peebles. It's breezy but sunny and I only put a jacket in my pack after a debate. We head out of town onto the John Buchan Way while Chris expounds on the Imperialist sympathies of the eponymous author. The trail takes us over Cademuir Hill with a lovely descent down towards the Manor Valley. We ride past Dave's house, stopping to admire his shed, before climbing into the forest and up to the reassuringly-named Dead Wife's Grave. There's a very fast, white-knuckle descent back to the Tweed Valley then a long drag up the road into the strengthening wind. Some off-road tracks lead us through fields alive with the calls of lapwings before getting back to the road. We shelter behind a hedge to eat some lunch and escape the worst of the effects of the fresh air.

I'm blithely ignorant of what is to follow. We ride on up the road past the (defunct) art-deco Crook Inn and then turn left. The track winds up through a farm and on into another plantation. Suddenly it rears upwards and climbs from 200m up to the summit of Broad Law at 840m. It's a remarkable climb which simply doesn't let up in all its 4km. I get into a low gear and sit at a comfortable cadence with my heart rate at around 140. I feel good, as though I could do this all day. Things steepen a bit through some switchbacks to reach the forest boundary and I stop to wait for Chris. Obviously it has started to rain and the wind is intensifying from that most cardinal of compass points, the side. There is one section where I have to stop and push because it's just too damn steep and rubbly, but after that I ride to the top and it feels OK. We eat some more and get colder and colder.

Our route from Broad Law follows the line of a fence over some bleak Borders hills. The riding is less than enthralling and before long we're reduced to pushing with cold hands and feet as the rain lashes us and drains any vestiges of warmth from our bodies. What started as a pleasant Sunday ride has suddenly turned into a gruesome death-march which makes me want to sell all my bikes and spend the rest of my life sitting on the sofa eating crisps and watching shite programmes on a 98-inch plasma TV. And so it continues over Dollar Law and onto Pykestone Hill. I've been here before, back in December, with Dave; we were cold then too. Darkness at Noon.

Weather can determine moods and when the sun comes out and the malevolent clouds clear we're at the start of the fabled 4-mile downhill back to Peebles. Dave and I failed to find this back in December, but today it is revealed to us like the path of the righteous. It takes a wee bit of navigation as well as a bit of faith, but it's there as long as you believe. It is sublime in places; a tenuous and almost invisible line through the heather. We ride as fast as we dare in the late afternoon sun. The lapwings and oystercatchers have emerged once more to herald our exultant return to warmth and light and... Peebles.

My wrist hurts from too much typing. Just stats next time.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Racing Hurts

The idea was for Stuart and I to race the SXC race at Aberfoyle together riding as we would in the Transalp. This would be a chance to practise under race conditions. However an old wrist injury aggravated by that punishing ride from Kinlochlevel put Stuart out of the picture. Unfortunately I had already entered and it was too late to pull out.

Its been over 2 years since I had raced a MTB. Aberfoyle had not been used as a race circuit for a number of years, I remembered it having a descent which if it was wet would be very tricky.

We arrive at the race venue and its raining oh no. Everyone says its a technical course so we head out on a lap recce. Its is technical, two fireroad climbs interlinked by a singletrack climb and short descent before the long descent down to the start/finish area. There are roots everywhere and its muddy and slippy. There is the descent I remember, it has a steady introductory root maze before plunging steeply down a rocky area into a corner that catapults you onto the final section of dwon steep littered with large roots all going down to the stream crossing. Hit this descent with too much speed and there is no way of stopping or even steering. I manage 2 clear runs out of 4 during the race.

I get a good start in the race in with the lead group up the first fire road section only to find I don't have the race speed to keep going and settle down to my own pace as people steadily overtake me on the fireroads. I then overtake them on the descents. This pattern continues throughout the race. The climbs are painful but I know that if I can keep someone in sight on the fireroad I can catch them on the final descent.

The race is 4 laps and I finish in 1hr 50mins about mid pack. I've gone as fast as I can but I could go on for a another couple of laps so its looking good for the Transalp which will be at a slower pace I hope. It was great fun and I'm looking forward to the next one I just need to work on my fireroad speed.

Oh and by the end of the race it was very very muddy.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Blame the bike.

Not fast enough uphill? Blame the bike! Not fast enough downhill? Blame the bike! Not keeping up with your mate on the level? Not having a good day? Having trouble on even the most moderate technical riding? Got a few aches and pains? Feel like doing some childish whinging? Blame the bike!

It's easy when you get the hang of it: just build up a repertoire of mechanical issues and pull them out of the bag whenever the heat is on. Here's a few basic ones to be going on with:

  • Tyres too soft/hard
  • Gears jumping/not indexed properly
  • Cables dirty
  • Seat too low/high
  • Brakes dragging
  • Suspension too hard/soft/rebound damping too slow/fast

There are many more creative ones as well which, unlike those above, can't be quickly and easily solved with nothing more elaborate than an Allen key or a pump. The real skill is being able to use all of these excuses on the same ride without getting a punch in the face, or some withering abuse at the very least.

Dave and I did a 74km circuit yesterday, starting in Kinlochleven. Kinlochleven is a funny town; the setting for Patrick McGill's "Children of the Dead End", it has a weird, cut-off feel about it, as though it existed in another realm entirely. It's hemmed in by big mountains which have lots of trails leading into them making for some outstanding descents on a bike. If you start a ride here, conversely, it means going uphill steeply for a long way. Our ride takes us up the road to Mamore Lodge and on to Loch Eilde Mor and then down to cross the Abhainn Rath at Luibeilt. The weather is perfect, apart from an easterly wind. We stop after the river crossing for some food and to drink in the splendid views. The onward route crosses a col before a (disappointing) descent to Lairig Leacach bothy. It's all really hard work. The surface is very rough and maintaining forward momentum is difficult (blame the suspension settings!).

We make good fast progress from the bothy into and through Leanachan Forest and on through Inverlochy to get to Glen Nevis and the start of the WHW back to Kinlochleven. It's a long fire-road climb and I need my bag of excuses again (gears jumping, brake discs dragging). We're greeted by a pretty French girl (probably) at the top who flashes us a winning smile and revitalises our flagging mojos. The last leg is unremittingly rough and punishing. The surface is strewn with loose gravel and boulders for mile after torturous mile until we reach the merciful sign pointing downhill back to the start. All my contact points are numb from the 5 1/2 bone-shaking hours in the saddle, but I manage to ride the rocky descent back to the road and actually enjoy it. My arms are screaming at the bottom and I'm very glad to be back at the van.

"So are you still going to ride the Kinesis in the race?", Dave asks.
"I'll reserve judgement until a suitable period of sober reflection has passed, but right now I just want to throw the fecking thing in the bin".

Now that was a proper mountain bike ride. I went through all three of my emotions (hunger, tiredness and disappointment) and emerged with a big smile on my face.

R1012415 Click the pic for more.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

18 hours? Every week?

Actually no...

I found the email that Dave had sent me detailing the 12-week plan for an MTB stage race. It's actually an 11 week plan AND it doesn't advocate spending 18 hours every week on a bike. Sure, some of the weeks involve somewhere between 15-18 hours, but most are lighter and key components are periodisation (whatever that is) and rest, which I'm really quite adept at. Lesson: read emails properly and listen carefully.

I managed to squeeze about 16 hours in this week... so here's a picture of a Yellowhammer.

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Sheildaig Effect

Today's ride (boiled down to stats and some terse ramblings because I'm too knackered to focus on a monitor)

Time: 4h 18m
Distance: 77.7 km
Average HR: 149bpm
Average speed: 18.1km/h
Height gain: 980m
Calories: 2834

Jaysus! How many calories?!

On paper this looked like an easy 5 hours over around 50 miles with little climbing. However the climbing was very deceptive. No big climbs but a murderous and seemingly never-ending series of short hills; what is known as the Sheildaig Effect, for the undulating road from Applecross to Sheildaig. The cumulative effect is physically and psychologically draining, particularly since the second half of today's ride is an out-and-back along the Great Glen Way beside Loch Lochy. The return is into the wind. Then it starts fecking raining. Again. My mood is black and I'm cursing all the extra weight I'm having to lug around to facilitate 5" of utterly superfluous suspension travel

On the upside, I did see a pine marten. And the gorse is in bloom. And the curlews are here. In fact, were it not for the awful bloody weather, you could be forgiven for thinking that Spring is here.

That'll do for today. I'm starving and must eat. So far I've had my dinner and anything else I can find that isn't nailed down; 3 cheese & onion toasties, bananas, crunchies, chocolate biscuits. If the cat's not quick it might be going to bed without its supper.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

10 down, 8 to go

I managed 4 hours yesterday.

Having watched the blustery showers come and go all morning, I set off from Glen Nevis at 2pm to ride to Kinlochleven and back on the WHW, reckoning on 2 hours each way. The first part of this ride is a slog up fire roads which just don't seem to get any easier. There is a grotesque new road bulldozed through the forest where the WHW used to cross a fence at the walk up to the old vitrified fort and this seems to go all the way to Lundavra. The trail proper ducks off to the left quite soon after the fence and I'm into some nice techy riding down steep, rocky switchbacks followed by tricky climbs up wet steps. All very involving. There are lots of cheerful walkers around, no doubt delighted that they are nearly at the end of the trail.

The ride to Kinlochleven is rough and there is a lot of surface water, but it feels quite easy for the most part. I ride the lovely rocky descent down to the Mamore Lodge road, but take it easy as it would look very foolish to injure myself here, alone and a long way from home. The road up to Mamore Lodge is very steep but it's over quickly. A glance at the GPS shows that I'm going too fast; it has taken less than two hours to get to the turning point. The wind comes to my rescue, however, blowing into my face all the way home. I'm relying on some energy chews to keep me going and although they are a disgusting "orange" flavour, they seem to be very effective because all the hills seem easy, even into the wind. The GPS runs out of power at the Clach nan Caimbuelach just on 3 hours so I remove a stone from the cairn as tradition dictates and dawdle home enjoying the nice technical riding in reverse.

4 hours car-to-car. Today is a rest day so I need to get 8 bike-hours in on Friday and Saturday.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Mission: Unpossible.

It's Tuesday and so far this week I've clocked up 6 hours on the bike. That's 3 hours on Sunday, 1 hour yesterday and 2 hours today. I'm trying to see just how feasible it is to fit in 18 hours in a single week, and the first week of my fortnight holiday seems a good time to conduct such an experiment. If I make it, I have all of next week to recover. If, instead, I reduce myself to a quivering amoeba, I have all of next week to recover.

My plan centres around getting two big rides in; 6 or 7 hours in a single day. The circuit from Spean Bridge to Fort William to Kinlochleven via the WHW then on to Luibeilt and back to Spean Bridge via the Lairig Leacach would be a good place to start. 66kms, 1800m of climbing taking in a circumnavigation of the Nevis Range hills, the Grey Corries and the Mamores. It all hinges on the crossing of the Abhainn Rath which can be un-possible in spate. I've been watching the local rivers to try to gauge how much water the hills are shedding. Most of the snows seem to have gone, but it's still the time of year when river crossings are a pretty hit-or-miss affair.

I arrange to meet Dave at Laggan this afternoon. He's been up north with his son Andrew, and Laggan is on his way home. I get there around lunchtime in April sun, with a backdrop of showers. I manage a couple of laps of the upper and lower red circuits before the showers become more than a backdrop at which point I retire to the cafe to drink coffee. Reasoning that caffeine is an ergogenic aid (not something you have to go to Ann Summers for...), I'm hoping that my performance will be enhanced by the time Dave arrives and the rain shower has passed. Alas, when he does eventually show, I've drunk far too much and have started to twich involuntarily. It's also pishing down. Thus no more riding of bikes takes place and the Abhainn Rath is swelling tumescently.

Twelve hours to go to meet my target... Hmmmm... This will be hard going when I have to fit in a 9-3:35 job. Ergogenic/performance-enhancing aids will be of little use if I can't thole a little rain. Maybe I need to prescribe myself 500mg of HTFU.

(Don't click that last link if you're at work as you might be fired. Also don't click it if you're easily offended. If you're at work and you're easily offended, HA HA!)

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Turps through a sick donkey...

I've not been riding for a few days. Last weekend was a family gathering at the Nest of Fannich to mark the 100th anniversary of the moment Duncan Campbell, my Great, Great Grandfather, died. My ancestral home is a sad sight nowadays since it was burned to the ground around 10 years ago. There are rumours of skulduggery surrounding its demise, involving a road installed by the new estate owners which cost around about the same as the Nest was insured for...

Anyway, I digress.

My plan was to ride to work every day of the last week of term, but laziness prevailed on Monday morning and by Monday evening I was feeling a bit shite. Two days of chills, fever and frequent toilet visits followed before I made it back to work on Thursday. A persistent sore head kept me from riding at all during the week, reasoning that I'd better let the bug pass (so to speak). So it was Sunday before I managed to get back to riding.

Time to visit the Lomonds. I meet Dan at midday and we head out on a loop from Markinch. I'm breathing too hard on what should be pretty straightforward climbs. Dan cleans the climb up to the East Lomond car park and I manage it with only one dab, but feel knackered, as though I'd not ridden for months. We get to Glen Vale, which is usually a fairly accurate facsimile of the first day of the Battle of Verdun, but today it is actually dry. The descent to the road is a delight as well - fast and swooping with the occasional two-wheel drift in the loamy soil. The payback is a grinding climb back up onto West Lomond. Dan rides an impressive portion of it as I churn in his wake with my bike on my back. Usually I can do this no problem, but today I just feel weak. No energy, aching back, sore head-weak. Even when we get to the downhill, I have no real go and my quads are cramping. Signs of something amiss. I think my stomach bug has depleted my mineral levels and I haven't properly replenished them.

Nevertheless, it was an excellent ride, taking 3 hours for 39km with 900m of ascent, but it wasn't anywhere near as comfortable as it should have been 3 months into the training. It's only two weeks to go before we start on Dave's Twelve Week Plan. This involves up to 18 hours a week riding a bike.

I've got The Fear.